Photograph by Mike Fay
National Geographic explorers have been using planes, helicopters, drones, and more to explore their world for more than a hundred years. Flying and viewing the world from above gives them a new perspective of their subject area and a speedy way to travel into dense jungles, vast deserts, and frigid lands.
What better way to examine human effects on a landscape than by surveying the scene from above? In 2004, Mike Fay spent five months flying an aircraft over Africa to view the condition of ecosystems and the possibilities for conservation. At only 400 feet above ground, Fay used video and photography to document what he saw along the way. Here, wildebeest disperse over the Serengeti as Fay’s plane flies overhead.
Turkana Basin Takeoffs
Photograph by Mike Hettwer
Meave Leakey and her daughter, Louise (pictured here), couldn’t do their work with human fossils in the remote Turkana Basin without a plane to get them there. Meave elaborates on their early years of flying together: “We’ve always had an airplane associated with the project. Louise had first got her pilot’s license and her father, of course, wouldn’t let her fly his airplane, so the first two years we would fly this two-seater plane that belonged to Richard’s brother, and Louise had very few hours on her pilot’s license and we had some quite hairy experiences.” Louise is now an established pilot with plenty of incident-free flights under her belt.
Reaching New Heights
Photograph by Jim Webb
While most botanists might choose to capture plant life from ground level, Mark Olson, pictured here, has his eye on the sky. Since plants collect light for photosynthesis from above, Olson has used a powered paraglider to gain an aerial perspective of dry tropics in Mexico, seeking an understanding of why a given plant has a particular shape.
Survey From Above
Photograph by Federico de Mano
In southwest Argentina montane meadows, or mallines, are facing conservation threats. Through a collection of photographs taken with his kite camera in 2010, Anand Varma (pictured here) set out to document the mallines and, by illustrating their beauty and biodiversity, communicate the importance of protecting the landscape from urban development and agriculture.
A Different Perspective
Photograph by Thomas Levy
In his search for hidden artifacts and indicators of ancient civilization in Jordan's Khirbat Faynan, Tom Levy used new cyber-archaeology methods that included large-scale 3-D modeling, onsite chemical characterization tools, and this special helium balloon for geo-referenced digital photography. The tools helped the archaeologists paint a detailed picture of what this abandoned city would have looked like as long as 4,700 years ago.
In and Out of Africa
Photograph by Beverly Joubert
Dereck and Beverly Joubert use planes and helicopters to capture photographs and film of leopards, lions, and other African wildlife. Dereck explains how aircrafts improve the duo’s efficiency: “The truth is, if I didn't fly my own plane I would not have been able to get us into places in Botswana that are truly amazing. In some cases, we had two camps, one where we were working on leopards, another on lions, [and] the flight between the two was eight minutes long. By car it was 16 hours!”
Mapping the Unknown
Photograph courtesy Richard E. Byrd Adm. Polar Center
On May 9, 1926, radio waves around the world hummed with the news that American naval pilot Richard Evelyn Byrd had just flown a three-engine Fokker monoplane over the North Pole, becoming the first man to reach it by air. Taking off from a base in Spitsbergen, Norway, he apparently made the round-trip in 16 hours, narrowly winning a race with the dirigible Norge, piloted by Roald Amundsen, which crossed the Pole on the way to Alaska on May 13. Here, Byrd checks a sundial compass from an R4D aircraft.
Photograph by Ben Horton
Albert Lin in 2010 and 2011 conducted a noninvasive survey in the region of the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. Essential to the research were the images that came back from a microcopter—here being launched by a member of the team—that was deployed over the Valley of the Khans. Their survey used the most advanced technologies to investigate one of the world’s greatest ancient mysteries. By locating archaeological sites in this sacred area, the team hopes to enable the conservation of this important landscape.
Photograph courtesy Keystone View Company
In 1932 the National Geographic Society awarded its Special Medal to Amelia Earhart, the first woman to make a solo transatlantic crossing. After receiving the medal, Earhart humbly remarked, "My flight has added nothing to aviation. After all, literally hundreds have crossed the Atlantic by air, if those who have gone in heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air craft are counted and those who have crossed the North and South Atlantic. However, I hope that the flight has meant something to women in aviation. If it has, I shall feel it was justified; but I can't claim anything else.”
Read: Where Is Amelia Earhart?
Following the Leader
Photograph by Randy Edmonds
National Geographic funded William Sladen’s research on swan migrations from 1972 to 2005. In one study, Sladen taught predetermined migration routes to family-size groups of wild-hatched trumpeter swans by conditioning them to follow an ultralight aircraft (he served as wildlife consultant on the film Fly Away Home, which fictionalized a similar undertaking). Here, Sladen weighs a whistling swan in Alaska. His floatplane doubled as a swanherd, guiding birds to the shore.
Energized and Motorized
Photograph by George Steinmetz
National Geographic photographer and explorer George Steinmetz has had many adventures in a motorized paraglider—essentially a motor with a parachute that allows him to shoot photos from as low as 30 feet and as high as 6,500 feet. He took this self-portrait while paragliding above Peru’s Atacama Desert.
Inventor and Society President
Photograph courtesy Gilbert H. Grosvenor
Alexander Graham Bell, President of the National Geographic Society from 1897 to 1904, watches the first flight of a wheel-shaped kite he designed. When he resigned as the Society’s president, he said he wanted to devote more time to his experiments with kites, but he probably also wished to allow son-in-law Gilbert H. Grosvenor freer rein with the direction of the organization.
Confederate Flying Machine
Photograph by Maris Ensing
In 2011 engineer Maris Ensing set out to build an airplane based on bomber plans sent to the Confederate Army in 1850, during the American Civil War. The planes had never been built—until Ensing decided to take up the challenge.
See the team test the propeller.
Meet Our Explorers
Marshall dedicated his life to studying, exploring, and documenting animal life in the oceans and across the globe.
At the heart of our explorers program is the quest for knowledge through exploration and the people who make it possible.
Browse our different areas of exploration and discover the fascinating people behind the projects.